I confess. I’ve been binge-watching a Netflix series titled Last Chance U. It’s the story of the players, coaches, and support staff of a junior college football team in a nearly shuttered, end-of-the-road-town in Eastern Mississippi – a team that just happens to be perennial national champions in their division.
It was the title that drew me in. Most of the players were high-school superstars who were recruited to Division 1 football teams – the stepping-stones to the NFL. Somehow they managed to go astray at their respective university or college – drugs, poor academics, petty crimes – and were kicked out. Eastern Mississippi Community College and its football program are now their last best hope.
The show is structured as the classic heroes’ journey:
The Departure Act: The (former high-school) Hero leaves the Ordinary World (Division 1 football)
The Initiation Act: The Hero ventures into unknown territory (Eastern Mississippi football) and faces various trials and challenges standing in the way of re-birth (their irascible head coach to name one)
The Return Act: The Hero returns in triumph (Fingers crossed, maybe, back to Division 1)
You can’t help but pull for these kids. Many come from broken homes, poverty, and abuse, and they’re right on the edge of making it. Or stumbling again. Football is their ticket away from life’s trauma and toward the light of a positive future. If they succeed, is it because of or in spite of the head coach’s rants?
So I found it interesting as I emerged from Season 2 that the two most consistent sounds I heard from the coaches were anything but positive: their omnipresent screeching whistles and the word “NO!,” which was usually laced with highly descriptive expletives. Between-game practices were a dystopian mix of punishing, repeat-it-until-you-get-it-right drills, drenching sweat, and pounding, individually focused criticism.
I get it. Film directors have to showcase conflict because, without conflict, there is no hero for us to cheer for – no hero to finally make it. And most audiences will generally get bored watching even one hour of just “happy.”
That said, the program also reminded me of our penchant in organizations to want to fix people and rid them of their “weaknesses.” “Areas for improvement” often get as much attention in performance reviews as accomplishments. The underlying assumption seems to be that we can all be good at all things. If you manage or collaborate with people, and you’re curious about focusing on people’s strengths, check out this book.
Which brings me to this week’s “Getting Unstuck – Educators Leading Change” podcast guest, Professor John Hattie. John has waded through thousands of research studies involving millions of kids and found that of all activities that influence student success, two have the most impact. Two!
No spoiler alert here, folks. If you want to know which two activities make the most difference, join us for the full conversation.
But the other point that John talks about here is our tendency in education to figuratively blow whistles, shout “NO!” and try to fix all problems, large and small.
If you’re in business, from day one, you worry about scaling up success. In education, we’re the opposite. We try and find problems – usually problems we think people have – and then fix them. Instead, we should recognize the excellence that’s already there, and scale it up.
Sounds like EMCC football, yes? It’s not that we don’t have room for growth, but it’s incredibly rare for us to focus and scale up on what we do well in education.
And we do many things well – two especially. Nope, I’m not going to tell you what they are, but here’s a hint. The legendary and highly successful UCLA college basketball, John Wooden, had a book written about his teaching principles and practices: You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned.
Thanks for reading and listening.